It has been announced that Wootton Bassett will henceforth be known as “Royal”, like Tunbridge Wells and Leamington Spa. The decision was apparently taken in response to a personal initiative by David Cameron, and, we are told, recognises the vigils undertaken by people in the town as the bodies of British soldiers were repatriated after being landed at RAF Lyneham. As that RAF base is closing, the bodies of British servicemen killed overseas will no longer pass through the town centre. It’s a curious dedication – the two existing Royal towns acquired their honorific not to mark any particular distinction, but as places were Queen Victoria and her successor Edward VII enjoyed taking the waters.
When I heard this announcement, two thoughts came to mind.
First, I was reminded of Alan Bennett’s comments about remembrance in his play The History Boys:
We don’t like to admit the war was even partly our fault cos so many of our people died. And all the mourning’s veiled the truth. It’s not “lest we forget”, it’s “lest we remember”. That’s what all this is about – the memorials, the Cenotaph, the two minutes’ silence. Because there is no better way of forgetting something than by commemorating it.
I’ve long felt uneasy about the vigils at Wootton Bassett. I don’t want in any way to impugn the intent or integrity of those taking part, and I do not want to denigrate the comfort that these vigils bring to those remaining behind, although it’s important to understand that some locals were concerned about what they regarded as “grief tourism”. I do not want in any way to trivialise or disparage the bravery and loss that the vigils recognise. But I do feel that they have been used – especially by the armchair generals of the tabloid press – to legitimise what is really a sordid and illegal war for oil, one which the West cannot win and one in which the deaths of young British men are utterly pointless and needless. It uses solemnity and patriotism to deflect attention from the political reality, and to vindicate the politicians whose indefensible decisions have sent these young men to their deaths.
And, second, I wish I could rid myself of the belief that this gesture by Cameron’s government is utterly cynical. Not just because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but because it is closely related to the Coalition’s domestic economic agenda.
The closure of RAF Lyneham will have a desperate economic effect on Wootton Bassett. Local campaigners including former newspaper tycoon Eddy Shah claimed that some local business could lose up to half their trade. Local Conservative MP James Gray told an adjournment debate in the House of Commons:
the local economy depends to a significant degree on the base. Something like 3,400 jobs are directly or indirectly dependent on it, according to a recent survey by Wiltshire council. About £90 million within the local economy comes from Lyneham. If the site were to be left vacant and nothing were to happen there it would be a disaster for the local economy.
In other words, Wootton Bassett is just one more community that is reeling at the effect of public expenditure cuts – another victim of the Coalition’s deficit fetishism. One is bound to wonder whether this honorific is anything more than a rather hollow and empty sop to a town whose economic decline would conflict with the political narrative about the significance of the war in Afghanistan.